Dr. Marshack’s blog postings are short and timely. She shares tips that make your complex relationships work better. She also posts questions because she wants to hear from you and share ideas. Bringing people together to help each other is one of her missions.
Note: Some of the older blogs posts have been imported from a previous website and may have broken links. Try the “search” function in the sidebar to find linked pages that appear to be missing.
If you are a Neurotypical in a relationship with an adult on the Autism Spectrum, you will know in a minute of conversation if your new therapist has a clue about Empathy and Empathy Dysfunction. If they don’t get it that your spouse or partner (parent or sibling) lacks empathy, and that this is painfully disruptive of the relationship — then move on to another therapist.
It’s important for you to remember that an inexperienced therapist is potentially quite damaging to your self-esteem. Don’t take the risk.
Below are some red flags to look out for when choosing your therapist:
The first red flag is that your therapist relies mostly on her empathic nature to provide a healing environment for her clients. While this is nice, and will work for you, it won’t work for your ASD family member. And it will backfire.
The second red flag is that she becomes annoyed with you for trying to explain your partner’s Empathy Dysfunction. She will see you as complaining instead of trying to guide her toward a more fruitful approach.
The third red flag is her assumption that your ASD partner will develop insight from therapy and become more aware of you as a result. Because she fully believes that all people have empathy to some extent, she will keep using this approach and likely go nowhere.
Trust your intuition. If you like the therapist and so does your ASD spouse, it may be worth it to teach her how to work with you. She may be willing to read some books or take a course at the local university. At the very least, her desire to get it, is a big deal, as long as she can handle confrontation from you when she has wandered afield.
Obviously, your best bet is a therapist who has a solid education in the specialty of Autism Spectrum Disorders, and she has experience treating NT/ASD couples and families. If you can find an NT therapist who has personal experience living with Autistics in her family, all the better. But make sure she has really come to terms with her own psychological trauma — and that she can work with Empathy Dysfunction.
There is a small group of the opinion that only Autistic therapists should work with these relationships, but that seems an oxymoron if you ask me. Why would you want a therapist with an Empathy Dysfunction, advising a couple where the primary breakdown in the relationship is due to EmD-0?
Relationships between Neurotypicals and people on the Spectrum can be very tough, but as a seasoned professional I will help you through the dark times. Focusing on the Neurotypical partners and family members of someone with ASD, I help my clients understand “Asperger Syndrome” and then take a closer look at how it impacts their relationships. If you need professional help, you can contact me to schedule an online appointment on my Contact page.
Of all of the people who should have the empathic skill to “get you,” you’d think it would be psychologists, and social workers, and marriage/family therapists. But in fact, they are sometimes the least prepared to help those of us who are in NeuroTypical/Autism Spectrum Disorder (NT/ASD) relationships, or Neurodiverse Relationships. Even those who claim to have special training in Autism Studies, may not necessarily get you or comprehend what you live with.
Why? It’s pretty simple really. These well-intentioned professionals make three damaging errors.
First, they assume that the underpinning of all psychological healing is an empathic relationship with their client.
Second, they teach empathic listening skills as if this leads to interpersonal change in all people; it does not.
Third, because of their emphasis on relying on empathy in the therapeutic relationship, they deny the emotional experience of the NeuroTypical — who lives with a partner without empathy; this mistake crashes the therapy.
As a result of these three errors, the ASD/NT couple often ends up moving on to yet another psychotherapist, who continues to get nowhere with them, and may even cause more frustration and anguish.
You need to understand just what Empathy is in order to fathom why EmD-0 is so destructive to relationships and family life. Further your therapist needs to grasp the problems created in a relationship where one partner lacks empathy — if they are going to be the least bit helpful.
Empathy is an elegant system of human interaction, in which we notice the person who is speaking to us (or engaging us in some way). We notice their gestures, their facial expressions, their tone of voice for example. We notice if any of these things change over the course of the conversation — and we respond to those changes. The most important part of any conversation for those of us with empathy — is the person who is speaking.
Your Therapist Needs to Imagine a World Without Empathy.
The problem with most therapists is that Empathy is their world. It’s how they interact all day long with others, their friends, family and clients. It’s also why we NTs get stuck in our relationships with those on the Autism Spectrum. For years, we have been making the same mistakes as the kind and empathic psychologist or social worker. Blindly using empathy to communicate with someone who has Zero Degrees of Empathy, is — well — not very empathic is it?
When it finally occurs to us that empathy will not provide the solutions to our relationship problems, we are truly stumped. We can’t believe it and try harder to impose our empathic ways onto our Autistic loved ones. We may become depressed, angry or sullen because of this failure. This is a tough place to be. It feels like a blind canyon, with no way out. If your therapist is stuck with you in that blind canyon, then all hope is lost. It’s at this point we absolutely must find a therapist who gets it. By getting it, I mean that the therapist uses their empathy to imagine a world without empathy. If they can do that, they can understand the “Aspie.”
It’s my job as a therapist to enter your world, no matter how foreign to me, and walk with you out of the confusion — and with a plan that works for all involved. Don’t settle for anything less from your therapist.
If you are ready to receive help and you are looking for a professional with over 40 years of experience, please go to my Contact page to schedule an online video appointment.
Below are a few pages from the first stages of writing my new book on parental alienation. It’s such a very tough subject, that it has taken me years to clear the emotional space to write about it. I also know that, as a writer, I need to share my experience with readers, even before it is finished. Giving voice to my feelings and opinions is a big deal. For a Mom who has lived through parental alienation, with the utter devastation of being severed from her children — well it is important to make known that I am alive and well and that I count. Let me know what you think.
We Have a Choice Between Altruism and Narcissism
The title of this book is LOVE GONE BAD: A story of Autism, Narcissism and Parental Alienation. I wish I could come up with a better title, one that conveys there is hope, but during the course of my writing I couldn’t find another title that was compelling. The book is based upon my life, and how I came to understand the interplay among autism, narcissism and parental alienation.
But there is hope in this book too, especially if you are struggling with the same problems I faced. There is a silver lining to being victimized by a narcissist. You were targeted because you are extremely empathic. You are an easy mark when your empathy is not used for a higher purpose. But in service to altruism, your empathy makes you a Super-Hero. It is through altruism that empaths shine. At least for me, consciously embracing my altruistic side saved my life from the abuse of narcissists.
Covid 19 Wake Up Call
My adult life is sandwiched between two international wake-up calls — 9-11 and the current Covid 19 Pandemic. Before 9-11 I was busily building the life of a mom, wife, grad student and professional. You know that phase, don’t you? It’s where you fully believe in yourself so that anything you put your mind to, you can accomplish. This belief comes with the notion that if you just work hard enough and you are kind enough, it all works out.
With 9-11, my simple belief system began to fall apart. I realized that I was working too hard, that my marriage was crumbling, and that my fears were growing that it would all soon be unmanageable. I fretted over my children, both of whom have disabilities (autism and learning disabilities/mild TBI). I hired several helpers to maintain the heavy schedule I had committed to (i.e. house cleaners, yard workers, drivers, tutors). The girls were in private schools to accommodate their disabilities. I worked full time as a psychologist, and yet managed to take them to piano lessons, and soccer practice, and Girl Scouts. I orchestrated it all with the help of my office manager, who also did double duty as babysitter and chauffeur on occasion.
It might have been a bit easier during those years before 9-11, if my husband, Howard had been able (or willing) to help, but he wouldn’t. It was all he could do to go to work, eat, sleep and watch TV. I remember one Sunday evening; I was working in the kitchen making meals for the week to put into the freezer. I had just thrown a load of laundry into the washer, because my life had become nothing more than multi-tasking, as I struggled to keep up with the family demands. Howard walked through the kitchen, not stopping to say a word or offer help. So, I asked.
“Howard, on your way to the garage, would you grab a pound of hamburger for me?” I asked.
Howard stopped and looked at me with a blank stare. Then he said, “Why are you always telling me what to do?” He was a little annoyed.
I felt a bit guilty about his annoyance that I was asking for help, but I decided to take his question literally. “Well,” I paused. “I guess I am always telling you what to do” I agreed. Then with only a small pause, I said, “That’s because I plan everything for our family, so that it all comes together. If I didn’t make these meals for the week, you wouldn’t have any food. If I didn’t buy the children’s clothes or school supplies, I am not sure you would know where to shop for them. I schedule all of the medical and dental appointments too. I manage all of the household helpers such as babysitters, house cleaners and yard maintenance people — since you won’t even mow the lawn unless I remind you. So, yes I am always telling you what to do because I need help and you never offer.”
He kept staring at me, so I continued, since I never can fathom what is behind those blank looks. “I guess I could turn it all over to you to manage, or you could appreciate what I do and offer to help. Or, you could just do as I ask and not make a fuss. I need a pound of hamburger, please.”
Howard said nothing. He gave me the blank look again. But he did return with the hamburger.
Something snapped inside of me when New York City’s Twin Towers went down. My life wasn’t real. I was dancing as fast as I could to create the illusion of a life, but there was no love, no real substance. My marriage was hollow. Even my children were burdens that I stressed over and yet saw them slipping away, in spite of my attempts to love them and provide for them.
Now I am at another crossroad with the “novel” Corona Virus. I can’t even sum up what is happening for me at this crossroad, since I haven’t gone through it yet. We are still quarantined, with no end in sight to the pandemic (not to mention a cure). But the last couple of weeks are giving me pause to recognize a familiar feeling, like the one I had during 9-11-01. There is an awareness that it is time to rise to an even higher realm of enlightenment and service to others. What that means for me, or any of you, remains to be seen, but I suspect it is a powerful force moving through our collective consciousness.
Interestingly, as the radio hosts and the politicians and the scientists tell us to stay home and protect our families and ourselves, I don’t have a family to protect. I lost my children to Parental Alienation efforts. I lost many friends and most other extended family members too. They all fled from the 12 years of damage that was unleashed on me when I separated from Howard. (I have explained a lot of this in my previous book, “WHEN EMPATHY FAILS,” and I will expand on some it in this book, as I explore narcissism in “Love Gone Bad.”)
I do have dear ones to protect, however. Those that come to mind first, when I hear the admonition to keep loved ones safe, are my dog Simon and my three cats, Neo, Trinity and Seven of Nine. We have all grown older together during the many years following my 9-11 transformation, as you can see in the photo of Simon and I at the top of this chapter. Gone are the days when Simon would run into the bushes for his ball, or splash into the river in order to fetch a stick. Gone are the days of rescuing a treed cat, who strayed too far on an adventure. Now the cats nap lazily in the sun, while Simon and I take leisurely walks on the Marine Drive Trail. Gone is our youth, spent on fighting for our freedom, but the love is still there. That’s what is so precious about this photo of Simon and I — the unspoken but obvious loving connection between two Earth beings.
I think the transformation that is coming with the Covid 19 Pandemic is far different than the 9-11 transformation, at least for me. I had the living daylights scared out of me when Howard, my neighbors, and City Hall came after me with a vengeance. I was harassed, stalked, assaulted, sued, and my children were threatened. To give you an idea of how horrendous the abuse was, I spent $550,000 in legal fees, hired 16 lawyers, to handle over 21 legal matters in the span of 12 years. It was nothing short of a miracle that I made it — even though my children did not. From my 9-11 transformation I learned that I could fight for myself instead of being a helpless victim.
This time, with the Covid 19 Pandemic, I don’t need to prove that I am a warrior. I have already learned how to fight, how to protect myself, how to survive ruthless people — even how to survive the loss of my beloved daughters. This time, fear is not the driver. Nor is competing or winning. Of course, I will fight to survive again if I have to, but the isolation imposed by the government in order to stop the spread of this deadly virus — this isolation is very different than I experienced when I was on my own to fight a human enemy. This isolation is providing me the opportunity to shed the last of an unusable human belief system, so that I can embrace a new spiritual me, who is creative, aware, and available to others.
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor . . .
Ironic, isn’t it that in order to write about narcissism, it is inevitable that I should come to compare it to altruism? I have been intuitively drawn to this dichotomy for a long time. In fact, a light bulb went on for me when I stumbled upon a succinctly worded description of these two sides of humanity, while visiting the museum at the World Trade Center, in New York City, just a year before the Towers fell.
At the museum, I perused the history of this great city, and I learned of the famous poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1885, commemorating the installation of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Most Americans know the last few lines, but the entire poem is a statement of just how important it is to embrace our altruistic nature, especially at a time like this with a terrible disease wreaking havoc around the world — regardless of race, religion or political persuasion.
Please read these inspiring lines carefully. We have a choice, to compete and conquer, or to come together for the benefit of all. It’s time for empaths to shine your light on the world and show what altruism can do. It will be amazing.
The New Colossus
Not like the giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
–Emma Lazarus, 1885
What’s in the new book?
There are many chapters to come in this story of parental alienation involving people with narcissism and/or autism. For now, I want to share the beginning of the writing journey. I am inspired to clear up some important mysteries on this topic.
How well do you manage your emotions? How about other people’s emotions? Can you read what they’re feeling and use this awareness to improve your relationships? If so, then you likely have a high EQ or Emotional Quotient.
How do we develop this side of ourselves and how do we integrate this information with your thinking process? It appears to be a matter of mastering the following five steps, according to Eric Barker:
Step 1: Recognize your feelings
Feelings are things like joy, irritation, hunger, fatigue, boredom, confusion, pain, anticipation, pride, embarrassment, tension, and so on. The list is endless and I often advise my clients to get a thesaurus or dictionary and copy down as many “feeling” words as they can find. It is important to refine your repertoire of feelings and feeling words so that you can expand your consciousness about your EQ.
It’s also important to remember that you always feel your feelings first. Because of how you are “wired” thoughts or interpretations come after feelings. It is useful to notice those feelings consciously before your conscious mind decides to ignore them or misinterpret them.
Step 2: Interpret those feelings
The key element here is to realize that feelings are basically neutral. That is, they are neither good nor bad; they are just feedback. For example, anger may feel unpleasant to you and therefore, something to suppress. However, the feeling of anger is neither good nor bad; it is just feedback about something important for you to know. Try to view all of your feelings as feedback about the way you sense your environment. One person may be triggered to feel angry about something, while another may be triggered to laugh.
Once you get this, try to understand the root of your feelings. What made you feel like this?
Step 3: Label your feelings
Did you know that saying the word “anxiety” reduces anxiety?
Quoting from Permission to Feel, written by Marc Brackett who is the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence:
“…participants who were identified as having extreme fear of spiders—arachnophobia—were placed in a room with a caged spider. Some subjects used emotion words to describe their feelings in that situation, while others used emotion-neutral words to simply state the facts. The result? Members of the first group were able to take more steps closer to the cage than the other participants. Additionally, greater use of words such as “anxiety” and “fear” during exposure to the spider was associated with reductions in those emotions.”
Acknowledging your feelings will make you more powerful.
Step 4: Express your feelings and act on them
If you feel hungry or fatigue, it’s easy to decide to eat or sleep. But decision-making is more complex when the feelings are part of a financial plan for your business or a problematic relationship. This is where EQ really helps. Individuals who have trusted their EQ throughout childhood and have refined and developed those skills into adult life are in a much better position to make successful decisions.
You’ll improve any situation, be it familial or business, if you improve your EQ. When you’re able to feel your feelings, interpret them correctly, and then act upon that information, you have an advantage over those who rely solely on intellect to make decisions.
Step 5: Regulate your feelings
Among other things, in his article Barker talks about the power of positive self-talk. Being empathic with yourself it’s like a friend reassuring you and your brain is able to move easier over difficult moments from your life.
“In one experiment, subjects were shown neutral and disturbing images or asked to recall negative moments from their own lives. By monitoring their emotional brain activity, the researchers found that the subjects’ distress decreased rapidly—within one second—when they performed self-talk in the third person compared with the first person.”
Get to know yourself. Spend time with your friends and family. Make sure you dedicate some time for self-care and your hobbies. It’s easier to analyse yourself when your mind is rested. If you need professional help, you can contact me to schedule an online appointment on my Contact page.
Like everyone else, I am slowly coming to terms with my new life of isolating myself through social distancing, staying home, washing my hands constantly, and ordering all my groceries on-line. Among the many safety precautions, I have heard recently from radio show hosts, newscasters, politicians and scientists, I am considering if I should wear nitrile gloves when I pick up my mail, and then store it outside for three days, before I open it. Apparently, the virus can last for 72 hours on many surfaces. Sheesh! There is so much to learn and quickly.
The Covid 19 Pandemic has me a little upside down and backwards. I’m used to handling emergencies, but this one is confusing isn’t it? Even more so, when we NTs have to manage our autistic family members. Yes, I know many autistics will hate that word, “manage.” But those of us who live with them know full well that this is exactly what we have to do. It’s life or death.
Our lives, as those who love adults on the Autism Spectrum (and children too) have taught us to take charge during emergencies. We learned long ago to put our needs aside in a split second when there was an ASD meltdown or ASD Empathy Dysfunction in parenting. And because there are plenty of these emergencies in homes where autistic people live, our needs are put aside often enough that we NTs are very familiar with social isolation. We have experienced it for years.
Ironically, we already know a lot about social isolation. What we are working on is self-care in the face of autism in the family. We are trying to take back our lives and be authentic when we can. Then along comes a world pandemic and we are thrown back into our role as Super-Hero Care Giver. This blog is dedicated to those Super-Heroes, so that you have a wee moment to reclaim your life amid the chaos.
I was delighted today at a teleconference dedicated to members of our support groups, on Meetup ( https://www.meetup.com/Asperger-Syndrome-Partners-Family-of-Adults-with-ASD/ ) and ASPERGER SYNDROME & Relationships: Life With an Adult on the Autism Spectrum (www.asd-ntrelationships.com). Delighted? Yes, because this amazing group of people came together to offer hope, support and problem solving for other NTs who are struggling to keep their families safe. It’s not easy handling our own fears of Covid 19, without also having to calm the fears of our ASD loved ones — or try to keep them safe from their own thoughtless impulses.
(By the way, the call was recorded for members. If you want to listen again, please go to the websites above. If you are new to our group, please join).
Among the stories shared, we heard members struggling to get their ASD loved ones to simply cover their mouths when they cough, or to wash their hands (all over their hands). Some NT members work in the health care field and have to be extra cautious when they come home from work, to change clothes and clean up. However, their ASD partners think nothing of exposing the family to their work contacts. There were many examples of ASD behaviors that were frightening to our NT members; such as continuing to go to the public gym, or taking the risk to visit a sick friend.
Still others on the call shared their anguish for being blamed by their ASD partners for being overly dramatic about the risks of Covid 19. Or the exact opposite, where the ASD partner becomes so consumed with emergency preparedness that they can’t see the forest for the trees, to balance preparedness with quality family time.
How can they not see the dangers and that we are trying to help? Why can’t they be supportive and respectful during such a major crisis? Instead their ASD anxiety shoots through the roof, making it next to impossible to process what is best for others.
On the other hand, this group of NTs got it. Immediately. With each caller who spoke, the entire group got it. One by one people came onto the call and spoke of their support and admiration for each other, in this very tough time.
Tips to Stay the Course with Autistic Loved Ones During the Pandemic.
Members on the call were also freely offering advice on what works for them. As NTs in relationship with ASD family members, we do need extra special care. After all who else is there to take care of the family, if we don’t take care of ourselves first?
This list is in no particular order. Take what works for you.
Breathe. Apparently for us take charge Super-Heroes we may suppress some of our normal bodily functions in order to make ourselves quickly available for any emergency. You will be much more effective if you breathe and stretch.
Shake. There is a growing body of evidence that shaking our bodies does wonders for our immune system. It also relieves Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms. Since massage is out of the question, try shaking your arms and legs. Go for a walk, or ride your bike where it is safe.
Vitamins. Take your vitamins, not just your usual multi-vitamin, but in this time of incredible stress, increase those supplements that support your immune system. Check with your integrative medicine specialist. Vit B-12, Vit C, and Zinc are my favorites.
Talk. Talk to each other. Share yourself and your stories in our forums. Where else will you find others who know exactly what you are going through? We may have to adhere to guidelines for social distancing out there, but online there is no limit to whom you can “touch” and connect with. You are not alone with us.
When you discover that your child or partner has “Asperger’s Syndrome”, it makes you feel utterly helpless. I know, because I’m a trained psychologist, with a master’s degree in social work and a doctoral degree in psychology and I still felt that way about my own daughter who, by the age of 14, was officially diagnosed with ASD.
Being a helicopter parent or codependent partner is a natural outcome of the crazy-making AS/NT world. Our natural instincts are to protectively hover over our loved ones, when they have such a serious disability.
There is a continuous rise in the numbers of children diagnosed with Autism.
About a quarter of children with autism experience a regression in language or social skills (between 18 and 24 months old).
Effective interventions: address specific autism behaviors and identifies triggers for them.
It’s important to pay attention to medical conditions that often occur with autism spectrum disorders, but can be treated separately – treating them can improve a child’s quality of life.
Seek help and plan for the transition between adolescence and adulthood. This is a very important transition for people on the spectrum.
The report is underlying the importance of seeking professional help and working with a trained specialist to address specific autism behaviors and identify triggers for them. I put these words in bold to make a point.
Along my 40 years of offering professional help for people on the spectrum and their families, I often had people finding me and reaching out because they wanted the best help available and then going with a cheaper and obscure option because it was easier. I never heard back from some, but others contacted me again after some time passed realizing they’ve done more damage than good to their relationships.
ASD was often misdiagnosed in the past and a general psychologist might not be able to see it. Couple therapy won’t help repair an AS/NT relationship if the partner on the spectrum is not correctly diagnosed. Without this, therapy might leave the Neuro-Typical feeling alone and misunderstood. Depression and anxiety are a step away.
If you have a very expensive electric car and its electric battery malfunctions, would you go to the corner shop mechanic who never touched an electric car before? Of course not. You’d look for a specialist. So why would you risk your relationship with a loved one, that is far more precious than a car, to go to someone who never diagnosed ASD before?
Please seek specialized help when dealing with a partner/family/friends on the spectrum. You can contact me for a video appointment or search for trained help in your area.
A diagnosis of Autism might still not be enough. Some “Aspies” have multiple problems that make their ASD worse. Either way, you need to know what you’re dealing with, but it’s tough when your partner is terrible at explaining their inner workings. What’s most important is to remain positive. It’s vital to learn to accept your ASD family member as she or he is.
Making your “Aspie” feel confident and secure in your unwavering love and support is crucial and will act as a buffer against negativity. How do you do that?
If you are not a member of our private membership group, ASPERGER SYNDROME & RELATIONSHIPS: Life with an Adult on the Autism Spectrum, please consider joining us. We are an international community of partners, families and friends of people on the spectrum. We joined together to learn from each other and tackle the daily challenges you have when living with someone on the spectrum. I’m also giving several video conferences and teleconferences every month to offer professional help to all members at an accessible price for everyone.